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Mauk's out before he's in county administrator job

With a better contract from his board, the Orange County chief executive decides not to replace David Janssen.

January 31, 2007|Christian Berthelsen and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

A day after agreeing to become Los Angeles County's top manager, Orange County's chief executive changed his mind Tuesday, delivering yet another setback for officials searching for someone to run the nation's largest county government.

Thomas G. Mauk told Los Angeles County officials during a telephone call after a hastily convened closed session in which Orange County supervisors sweetened his contract and persuaded him to stay.

Los Angeles County supervisors thought they had ended their six-month search to replace retiring Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen when Mauk accepted the job Monday. Supervisors went so far as to formally appoint him that morning.

"I think it's an embarrassment for everyone involved, but it's a bump in the road, and it will be a footnote, if that, in history," said Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the Board of Supervisors. He said Mauk had expressed reservations about applying for the job before agreeing to be interviewed last week.

Mauk is the second person to snub Los Angeles County, underscoring the difficulty that large counties -- especially this one -- face in finding and retaining qualified managers.

Earlier this month, Sandra Vargas, a county administrator from Minnesota, rejected an offer. She was among five finalists the county selected for interviews. Two others also dropped out.

"We are obviously disappointed," said Tony Bell, a spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich. "However, we are confident that our search will produce another candidate as qualified as Thomas Mauk."

So why has it been so hard to find someone qualified to take the job?

The position delivers the opportunity to manage the nation's largest county government, molding policy on issues such as welfare, foster care, criminal justice and health for 10 million people. As a sign of its importance, some have dubbed Janssen "the sixth supervisor."

In addition, the pay is substantial. Mauk was offered $270,000 a year, roughly $100,000 more than his bosses, the elected county supervisors.

On the other hand, the challenges are enormous. The role involves balancing a $21-billion budget and trying to meet a daunting need for social services while balancing the demands of five bosses with divergent philosophies.

In the last year, race riots and other violence have beset the county's jails, which are so short of space that more than 200,000 convicted inmates have been released early since 2002. Meanwhile, the county's healthcare budget shortfall is projected to exceed $1 billion by 2010.

Yaroslavsky said such demands, coupled with the high cost of living and housing in Los Angeles, make the job a tough sell.

"To attract people from outside of Los Angeles County is very difficult," he said.

Janssen blamed a lack of quality, experienced public administrators willing to take on a new challenge. He said most of the best candidates are close to or past retirement age. Mauk is 63.

"It's very, very hard to find people for these jobs because of the generational problem," he said. "L.A. County is a huge operation. It can be intimidating."

Others said that prospective candidates might be intimidated not by the size of the county but by the near-universal respect Janssen has won in his handling of the role for more than a decade.

"It's like coming in after John Wooden at UCLA," said Robert Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.

Joe Cerrell, a longtime lobbyist and campaign consultant, likened Mauk's reneging on his verbal agreement to a broken marriage engagement.

"You hate to get turned down," Cerrell said.

Cerrell noted that the post does not carry the authority to hire and fire department heads. Other counties, including Orange, give their top managers that authority.

Janssen said Mauk called him at 2:30 p.m. to deliver the news. He declined to divulge the reasons Mauk gave for turning the job down.

"I don't think it's an embarrassment for us. He decided to stay where he was comfortable," said Janssen, sitting in his office with his head in his hands. "I'm very disappointed, but I wish him well. He would have been a good fit here."

Mauk declined to talk to reporters, issuing a brief statement in which he said that the "support of the Orange County Board of Supervisors and staff of the county was key to my decision."

Chris Norby, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, said that although the county could not match Los Angeles' salary offer, supervisors were able to sweeten Mauk's contract enough to persuade him to stay. The chief executive currently makes $215,000 a year.

"I think at this time in his life, Mr. Tom Mauk is considering the whole picture, not just the financial incentives," Norby said. "I think he's very comfortable here, he's very happy here. That was a factor."

The terms of his new contract are scheduled for a vote before the board next week.

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christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

jack.leonard@latimes.com

Times staff writer Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

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